Review: ‘Pinpoint’ by Greg Milner

Pinpoint: How GPS is Changing Technology, Culture, and Our MindsPinpoint: How GPS is Changing Technology, Culture, and Our Minds by Greg Milner

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A few years ago, I read Greg Milner’s “Perfecting Sound Forever.” That book, about the history of recorded music, was engaging, funny and often enlightening — even as it got bogged down in the techno-speak of computer files in its last chapter or so. I was hoping for the same from “Pinpoint.”

Well, “Pinpoint” was enlightening in places. But it too often wasn’t engaging, and it definitely wasn’t funny.

I don’t know if I should entirely blame Milner. The subtitle promises much but doesn’t quite deliver. Yes, we’re probably too reliant on GPS these days, which means that many people can’t read a map — or they trust the godlike voice of GPS so much they end up driving into lakes. That’s just one chapter, though. And yeah, there’s something about our internal compass that’s gotten lost, thanks to GPS — after all, why bother to memorize star charts or be able to count waves if this digital machine will do it for you? (That’s another chapter — and we’ve been losing knowledge to machines for ages, including being able to recite Homer from memory the way the old Greek griot did himself.)

But perhaps the bigger problem is that this book is both too small — a pop history of GPS and accompanying technology — and too big — trying to take on every aspect of how GPS has changed modern life. So we get how GPS and atomic clocks are pretty much at the heart of every bit of technology we have these days (and woe is us if they fail), as well as capsule histories of a few companies that made mints from the technology, such as Magellan and Garmin. A deeper dive on either side may have made for a better book.

I didn’t dislike “Pinpoint.” Early chapters on navigation and satellites were promising. Milner is a fine writer and he obviously did his research. But the book lacks the passion of “Perfecting Sound,” which means that I wasn’t hurrying back to it when I put it down.

Maybe it would have been better to map out something different.

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Perhaps the saddest passage I’ve read in awhile

$6000 Sex Dolls Turn Fantasy To Reality, Almost
Image from Getty via the Huffington Post.

From “600 Miles in a Coffin-Shaped Bus, Campaigning Against Death Itself”, excerpted from “To Be a Machine,” in last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine.

Author Mark O’Connell is talking to Roen Horn, who’s accompanying transhumanist Zoltan Istvan on a trip across the country. Horn is 28 and hasn’t lived much — he’s the son of a devout Calvinist, though he’s become an atheist — yet he decides he likes the idea of living forever. “I want to have fun forever,” he says.

This is though he currently lives like, in O’Connell’s words, “a medieval monk.” No problem, Horn tells O’Connell, he’ll indulge later.

This leads to the following exchange:

“You know one really cool thing about being alive in the future?” he asked.

“What’s that?”

“Sexbots. … It’s something I’m very much looking forward to.”

He had a particular way of smiling that was half evasion and half challenge. Out of context, you might be tempted to describe it as smug, but the effect was somehow deeply endearing.

“The problem I have with sexbots,” I said, “is why wouldn’t you just have sex with an actual person? I mean, all things being equal.”

He said: “Are you kidding me? A real girl could cheat on you, sleep around. You could get an S.T.D. You could maybe even die.”

“Is that potentially a bit alarmist?”

“No way, man. It happens literally all the time. See, a personal sexbot would never cheat on you, and it would be just like a real girl.”

He said nothing for a time and drank at leisure from his glass of water. He consumed some further forkfuls of salad. He gazed out the window at the parking lot full of trucks, the Interstate beyond, the ever-present vultures hanging in the air.

I said, “Do you mind me asking if you’ve had bad experiences with people cheating on you?”

“I have so far abstained from sex,” he said. “I have never had a girlfriend.”

“You’re saving yourself for the sexbots?”

He nodded slowly, shrewdly raising his eyebrows. You bet he was saving himself for the sexbots.

“Fair enough,” I said, raising my hands in capitulation. “I hope you live that long.”

He said, “I’m pretty sure I will.”

Roen, I wish you well, but you might try a few human beings first — women, men, whatever works for you. They’re not all that bad.



Earth sets another record! Yay us!

Image from

According to some “scientists,” the Earth extended its record for average temperature to a third straight year:

Marking another milestone for a changing planet, scientists reported on Wednesday that the Earth reached its highest temperature on record in 2016 — trouncing a record set only a year earlier, which beat one set in 2014. It is the first time in the modern era of global warming data that temperatures have blown past the previous record three years in a row.

Frankly, I don’t know what they’re talking about. I mean, I live in Atlanta, where we’re enjoying an unseasonably warm few days — but we also had a near snowstorm on our hands two weeks ago! How can there be global warming if it’s (almost) snowing in Atlanta? And I refuse to take their word about the Arctic until I actually see it for myself. I mean, who’s to say that all that iceberg calving and polar bear dying aren’t just … fake news?

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Going to #Mars!

Image from NASA via The Telegraph.

This thrills me:

We have set a clear goal vital to the next chapter of America’s story in space: sending humans to Mars by the 2030s and returning them safely to Earth, with the ultimate ambition to one day remain there for an extended time.

I love space exploration. I love astronomy. When I was a kid, I used to pore over old newspapers and magazines announcing the moon landing — newspapers and magazines my father had saved and put in a cabinet. (The only other periodicals he did this for were the ones announcing the Miracle Mets’ victory in the 1969 World Series, a once equally improbable event.) I watched sci-fi TV shows and movies and fantasized that one day I’d have a chance to ride in “2001’s” Pan Am space shuttle. It’s not for nothing that “2001” remains one of my favorite movies, more for its sense of awe and wonder than the cold creepiness of HAL 9000’s determination to knock off the human crew.

I’m probably too old, poor and out of shape to ever take a ride on a space vehicle, but that doesn’t mean I don’t follow launches with the excitement of a child.

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Following #Matthew

Image from NOAA via Weather Underground.

You don’t fuck with a hurricane.

As I write this, Hurricane Matthew is about 45 miles NNE of Cape Canaveral, Florida. After devastating western Haiti and plowing across the northern Bahamas, it’s remained just off the Florida coast for its entire U.S. run, leaving hundreds of thousands without power. Damages and casualties are still to be determined, but the National Weather Service is warning of a huge storm surge. Cape Canaveral has recorded gusts in excess of 100 mph and Matthew remains a Category 3 storm, not expected to weaken until it enters the waters off Georgia.

Hurricanes always give me a pit in my stomach.

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The ‘Schrodinger’s cat of candidates’

Just stumbled on this “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee” video that’s making the rounds about the possibility — floated by Donald Trump — that the election may be “rigged.”

Personally, I just love the description of Trump as the “Schrodinger’s cat of candidates” — “both winning and losing at the same time” — because the election isn’t rigged if he wins, but it is if he loses.

Hard to argue with that.

Here’s to you, #Rosetta, ‘space science at its best’

Image from ESA via Sky & Telescope.

Rosetta’s work is done.

The space probe, sent into the solar system in 2004 to observe and explore the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, crashed into it Friday, a noble (and planned) conclusion to its 12-year mission.

In 2014, Rosetta’s lander Philae set foot (so to speak) on the comet, sending back a treasure trove of information before its power went out. Meanwhile, Rosetta kept watch from a distance, transmitting images of the comet (and other celestial objects) back to Earth.

Even in its final moments, Rosetta kept working. From The Associated Press:

The controlled descent took place at about 90 centimeters per second — roughly half walking speed — giving Rosetta a chance to snap some unprecedented low-altitude images of the comet that could reveal surface features as small as an inch (2.5 centimeter).

Frankly, I’m enthralled by space exploration, whether done by machines — as it has been for too long — or manned missions. There was a time when I wished to be a passenger aboard “2001’s” Pan Am-branded shuttle. Now Pan Am is gone, 2001 is 15 years in the past and talk of manned missions beyond earth orbit remains just that — talk.

I may never be able to climb aboard a space-bound vehicle. (It would probably be too pricey, anyway.) But through probes like Rosetta, we can all get a taste of the heavens.

“Farewell Rosettta, you’ve done the job,” said mission manager Patrick Martin, according to the AP story. “That is space science at its best.”

Looking forward to much, much more.

The upside of climate change: Global pooling

Image from CurbedNY.
One of the best things about the uneven “A.I.” was its startling vision of the future — a vision that showed the effect of global climate change, including a Manhattan mostly underwater.

(The inclusion of the Twin Towers — the movie came out in June 2001 — makes the scene even eerier.)

Two recent articles made me think that the movie’s version of Manhattan, and the rest of the coastal world, is pretty much inescapable.

The first is a huge story in New York magazine, which has been among the publication’s most-viewed stories even with the Roger Ailes-Fox saga dominating the issue. Writer Andrew Rice puts a geophysicist named Klaus Jacob front and center; Jacob, who predicted the effect of a flood event on New York’s subway tunnels and was shown to be on target after Superstorm Sandy, is — if not gleeful — certainly comfortable in his role of Cassandra as he wonders if we’re well past the point of no return:

After Sandy, Mayor Bloomberg pledged to direct some $20 billion in disaster aid into “climate resiliency” measures, such as floodproofing buildings by moving mechanical equipment to upper floors. In areas that were hit hard by the storm, many homeowners have taken advantage of a city program called “Build It Back,” reconstructing their houses high up on stilts. Beneath this defiant civic agenda is an old, blithe assumption that New York is too rich, too important, too tough, to ever give up an inch of real estate. “We still have essentially the gung ho, Wild West way of doing business in this country, where we think we are the master of nature,” Jacob said. “Fighting, building barriers, instead of accommodating the ocean.”

(Sorry, Florida.)

Then there’s this piece in The New York Times about President Obama’s attempts to focus the country on climate change, which has become a major interest of his. In general, he’s had to go it alone — thanks to an intransigent Congress and his own early misreadings of legislative levers and the public mood. At the end of the piece, though, he says he hopes he can have more of an effect as an ex-president:

“My hope,” he said, “is that maybe as ex-president I can have a little more influence on some of my Republican friends, who I think up until now have been resistant to the science.”

Good luck with that, sir.

But look at the bright side: One day, America’s inland developments might be waterfront property.